Educational Issues

10.08.15 6:20 PM ET

Democratic Candidates Won’t Directly Talk to Voters

Teachers unions managed to kill an event that would allow an open dialogue between teachers and the candidates for the Democratic nomination.

Recently, while speaking at a public high school in Des Moines, Iowa, President Barack Obama criticized political correctness and those who not only refuse to hear opposing views, but go so far as silence opposing points of view:

“I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it had language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either—that when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”

While his message was directed at college students, the message is really universal. While the protection of speech is at the bedrock of our democracy, it’s critical as a nation that we exercise our right every day—and that includes embracing and engaging with those we may not agree with.

Incidentally, while President Obama’s message may have resonated with the high school students sitting in the gymnasium, it falls on deaf ears with the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

Recently, The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children teamed up to hold forums focused on our nation’s education system. The first forum was held in New Hampshire and featured six of the leading Republican presidential candidates—all of whom sat for 45 minutes to speak in depth on education issues facing our nation. The events were unscripted, live, open to the public and forced candidates to talk policy specifics and not in soundbites.

A second forum was to be held in Iowa and feature Democratic candidates for president. In addition to The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children, the two organizations teamed up with the Des Moines Register, one of the nation’s most respected newspapers.

Unfortunately, this event will not take place, as Politico reported, the nation’s two largest teachers unions, National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation for Teachers (AFT), worked aggressively behind the scenes to kill the event.

Rather than risk having Democratic candidates speak about education reform, perhaps celebrate the teachers’ unions positions or perhaps break with the teachers’ unions (both the NEA and AFT have endorsed Hillary Clinton), the unions maneuvered behind the scenes to actively discourage candidates from participating.

This form of bullying is anti-democratic. It diminishes the free engagement of ideas—just as the president said, those you agree with but perhaps equally important those you disagree with.

The teachers’ unions active attempt to undercut an event sponsored by two organizations dedicated to education reform and a highly respected newspaper perhaps says more about AFT’s and NEA’s weakness than their strength.

Voters have demonstrated time and again that candidates who buck the teachers’ union are rewarded. The NEA and AFT oppose empowering parents, they oppose charter schools, oppose common sense tenure reform that would protect good teachers and remove ineffective teachers, and they sue to stop parents from accessing school choice programs. Meanwhile, voters strongly support all of these issues which is why in 2014, despite spending an estimated $100 million, the NEA and AFT were largely seen as the biggest losers of the election cycle. In nearly all parts of the country, voters rebuked the teachers’ unions’ message and backed reform-minded candidates.

The evidence is more than anecdotal. In a national poll conducted by Beck Research, a Democratic pollster who has previously done work for the NEA, 60 percent of Democrats favored the concept of school choice. Furthermore, 63 percent of voters supported private school choice, when they were specifically asked if they support or oppose “opportunity scholarships, also known as school vouchers.”

Perhaps there is no greater evidence that the teachers’ union has swung too far out of the mainstream that they both have been a target of  near-constant criticism from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

In the end, while the NEA and AFT may claim a momentary victory by silencing discussion and debate on education reform, ultimately they will continue to lose the battle with public opinion. More and more parents and voters have rejected the teachers’ union antiquated, top down, one size fits all approach to education, and continue to elect candidates who embrace reform that celebrates students and empowers parents.

Kevin P. Chavous is executive counsel and a founding board member for the American Federation for Children.  

Campbell Brown is an award-winning journalist, founder of The Seventy Four and a former CNN and NBC News anchor.